It’s a tough time to be Paul Greengrass, and an even harder time to be working at Universal.

According to Deadline, Universal has cannned Memphis, Greengrass’ long gestating Martin Luther King Jr. biopic.

The official story is schedule conflicts, timing, and doubt that it could be pulled together to hit theaters in February 2012. Rumors are swirling that the King estate put pressure on Universal to can the project. Similar reasons have been given for Lee Daniels’ film Selma, which also failed to take off with the Weinstein Company.      It’s unknown whether the King family has issues with the script, or because they’re championing an MLK biopic at DreamWorks, which is the only one to have paid to use King’s speeches.

Memphis isn’t lost entirely. Greengrass and producer Scott Rudin are shopping the project around, and Greengrass has certainly had luck with going independent in the past.

This is the second high profile film Universal has passed on — the first, of course, being In the Mountains of Madness — and politics and whispers aside,  it’s an unfortunate sign as to where things stand at the studio. As Drew McWeeny brilliantly pointed out, they’ve taken risks, and have really come away hurting.    We are looking at a massive failure of studios and audiences, and we’re all coming out the poorer for it when projects like these have to be canned.

Of course, one might also argue why the world needs a MLK biopic.   I can completely see (and agree with) arguments as to why.   A giant part of my brain says “Yes, dammit, people need to hear his story, think of the young audiences who would see this and be moved!”  But does the world really need a fictional retelling of King’s life when his real speeches and ethics play so vitally and brilliantly?   And if it’s just to show the “real” story (the flaws and scandals that history smooths over in favor of the message), I have to ask why we would be so eager to see that.   It’s there. It’s accessible.  His message is still what matters, not his personal life, and the multitudes aren’t any richer for knowing the more  sordid details.

If audiences aren’t already drawn to read up on King  after seeing any snippet of “I have a dream”, why would they after an actor mouths them? It’s an honest question that should be asked of any biopic, but especially one where we have such compelling existing footage and recording of the real man.   Perhaps this is territory best left to documentary, not feature film.